America and the West: A Comparison of Violence

Violence in the United States is a topic that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve read some books and many articles about it and about the issues related to it. I still don’t fully know how to make sense of it.

It does seem that this country is somehow different than many similar countries. What are these differences?

One could argue about which countries are the most similar and hence most comparable. For my purposes, I tend to think about countries that share traditions of culture, language, philosophy, politics, and law. I most specifically think of Britain and Western Europe, whose residents like to think of themselves as the center of the “Free World”.

There are many books that discuss the historical influences and continuities across these societies of the West. The history of the US largely originates from these societies and remains intertwined with them. So, in what ways has the US diverged in terms of crime and violence? And why has the divergence occurred?

One difference that has stood out to me is how violence relates to crime. Many similar countries have higher rates of particular crimes than the US. But the US has particularly high rates of crimes of all categories ending in violence, including homicide. What is the cause of this? Does this originate in America’s gun culture? If so, why did a gun culture develop here and not as much or else not in the same way elsewhere? If not a gun culture, what is the explanation?

Certainly, the US isn’t the most violent country in the world. But as far as I know none of those more violent countries are democracies that were founded on Enlightenment ideals of freedom. That is what makes American violence in all of its forms so intriguing. It’s not just about shootings, but also the fact that the US still practices capitol punishment and has the most incarcerated population ever. This is far different from other Western countries.

One book I was reading a while back is No Duty to Retreat by Richard Maxwell Brown. I haven’t read much of it yet, but the introductory thoughts have remained on my mind (Kindle Locations 11-20):

“Ancient English common law obliged one who was assailed and in fear of death or great bodily harm to retreat “to the wall” at one’s back before killing in self-defense. Indeed, the common law required an individual in such a plight to forestall violence by fleeing from the scene if such flight could be safely made. This was the English doctrine held by Blackstone and his predecessors in the common-law tradition. In America a gradual legal revolution reinterpreted the common law to hold that, if otherwise without fault, a person could legally stand fast and, without retreat, kill in self-defense. This was a right to stand one’s ground with no duty to retreat. Not merely a revision of an esoteric legalism but a significant development in American culture, no duty to retreat reigned mainly in the frontier states west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the early twentieth century a standard text on the American law of homicide declared that the duty to retreat was “inapplicable to American conditions,” and in 1921 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the United States Supreme Court incisively upheld the Americanized common-law doctrine of no duty to retreat.

“Representing similar, widespread social values, the Americanization of the common law in favor of no duty to retreat helps explain why the American homicide rate has been so much higher than that of England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also helps explain why our country has been the most violent among its peer group of the industrialized. urbanized democracies of the world.”

This is pointing to something fundamentally different (Kindle Locations 21-22):

“no duty to retreat is much more than a legal technicality. It is an expression of a characteristically American approach to life.”

Many people point to how strongly American society originates from England. That is the origins of the colonies that would become the first states. It is, after all, the reason most Americans speak English. Why did the US so early on take a separate path from England? In the first chapter, the author explains the what had become established in England (Kindle Locations 44-46):

“At the core of Blackstone’s view was the centuries-long English common-law tradition that supported “the idea of all homicides as public wrongs.” In England the burden was on the one accused of a homicide to prove his innocence. The plea of self-defense was eyed most skeptically. The presumption against the accused killer stemmed from the fear, as Blackstone put it, that “the right to defend may be mistaken as the right to kill.””

That is opposite of how the law formed here in the States. English travelers in the 1800s were shocked by what they observed when visiting the United States. Early on, England had made illegal the carrying of weapons in public; but in the US, weapons were everywhere and violence was commonplace. Americans were more likely than Englishmen to resort to resolving their own conflicts rather than relying on police and the legal system. This was the environment from which “no duty to retreat” took shape.

The issue of violence also involves our collective, public-supported response to violence. And so this relates to the state-sanctioned violence that is punishment of criminals. Another book that looks at this angle is Harsh Justice by James Q. Whitman. He also offers a historical comparison, but focuses on Germany and France going back to the 18th century prior to the revolutions. He points out how unique the US has become, especially in recent decades (Kindle Locations 21-32):

“Everyone who reads the newspapers knows that we have been in the midst of a kind of national get-tough movement, which has lasted for about the last twenty-five years. Still, Americans may not quite grasp how deeply isolated this period has left us in the Western world. Punishment in America is now, as Michael Tonry observes, “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared.”‘, There are certainly some parts of the world that have turned harsher over the last twenty-five years. This is true in particular of some Islamic countries.’, But among Western nations, only England has followed our lead and even England has followed us only up to certain point.’ As for the countries of continental Western Europe, the contrast between their practices and ours has become stark indeed. The Western European media regularly runs pieces expressing shock at the extreme severity of American punish- ment.8 Meanwhile, continental justice systems have come to treat America as something close to a rogue state, hesitating to extradite offenders to the United States.

“To be sure, this era of American harshness will presumably not go on forever, and it may already have slowed.9 Nevertheless, it is the disturbing truth that we now find ourselves in a strange place on the international scene. As a result of the last quarter century of deepening harshness, we are no longer clearly classified in the same categories as the other countries of the liberal West. Instead, by the measure of our punishment practices, we have edged into the company of troubled and violent places like Yemen and Nigeria (both of which, like many jurisdictions in the United States, execute people for crimes committed when they were minors–though Yemen has recently renounced the practice);10 China and Russia (two societies that come close to rivaling our incarceration rates);” pre-2001 Afghanistan (where the Taliban, like American judges, reintroduced public shame sanctions);’2 and even Nazi Germany (which, like the contemporary United States, turned sharply toward retributivism and the permanent incapacitation of habitual offenders).’

“What is going on in our country?”

In considering this question, the author emphasizes the position that the US holds in the world (Kindle Locations 34-39):

“America is, after all, a country that belongs to something it is fair to call the Western “liberal” tradition, elusive though the concept of liberalism may be. Certainly there are many aspects of American culture that seem manifestly to belong to a humane strain of liberalism. Ours, of all Western countries, is the one that is most consistently suspicious of state authority. Ours is the country with the inveterate attachment to the values of procedural fairness. Ours is the country that–unlike Germany or France never succumbed to any variety of fascism or nazism. Why, then, is ours not the country with the mildest punishment practices? Certainly, in most respects, Americans define their values by opposition to illiberal societies to the societies of places like China or the Afghanistan of’the Taliban or Nazi Germany. How could our patterns of punishment he bringing us closer to them than to the dominant polities of the contemporary European Union?”

I haven’t read very far in either of these books. I can’t say how well these authors clarify the issues. I can’t say where the data may point. I can’t say what an historical analysis might offer. But I’m intrigued enough to want to find out. I’m sure I’ll be returning to these books.

2 thoughts on “America and the West: A Comparison of Violence

  1. Some would argue that the United States might be better compared to other countries of the Americas. North America and South America are major regions of former colonialism. It could be more helpful in thinking about the United States as less of a Western country and more as a post-colonial country. Our history and culture in some ways is more tied up with Mexico than with England.

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